A Healthier Kind of Blues

We are in the midst of a very intense time of the year, with holidays and seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving (recently past), Hanukkah this week and Christmas a mere two-plus weeks away.

Wrap that up with a New Year’s celebration and “Wham”—more friends, family and food/alcohol than one normally enjoys in a three-month period.

Yet it can also be the season of SAD—seasonal affective disorder, when the amount of daylight decreases daily, and for those of us in the northern latitudes, cold weather intensifies. We’re eating more, getting less sunshine and quite probably less exercise. Hibernation is great for bears, not so good for humans.

It’s the wintertime blues. For myself and many, once the solstice passes and day length starts to increase, mood improves. But noticeable day-length increases don’t really occur here until mid-February. That’s a long time to feel blue. Continue reading

Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is well-known for his fun science demonstrations and a fervent dedication to public science communication. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery started in 1970 as an end-of-semester treat for Dr. Shakhashiri’s freshman chemistry class; by 1973, the Christmas lecture had become so popular that Wisconsin Public Television offered to broadcast it during Christmas week, and this collaboration has continued uninterrupted ever since.

That’s 49 years of Christmas lectures, commemorated by making indium, the 49th element, the Sesame Street-esque “sponsor” of the show. It helps that indium burns bright violet, the name of Dr. Shakhashiri’s granddaughter and hence his favorite color. The color purple made a firm foundation for many aspects of the show: The chrysanthemums frozen in liquid nitrogen were purple, as was the balloon I inflated during my spiel on air movement. Most of the set was various shades of purple, too.

Bassam Shakhashiri and J. Nepper on the set of Once Upon a Christmas Cheery

The set was whimsical and very purple. Photo by Eric Baillies.

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How To Make Medicine on Mars

Today NASA’s InSight lander will touch down on Mars. InSight, which launched on May 5, is NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The lander will begin a two-year mission to study Mars’ deep interior, gathering data that will help scientists understand the formation of rocky planets, including Earth.

NASA's InSight lander approaching Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While every spacecraft that reaches Mars offers more knowledge of the Red Planet, a lot of the excitement is fueled by hopes that someday these missions will bring humans to Mars and enable us to start colonies there. While this goal seems very distant, tremendous progress is being made. Scientists around the globe are making incremental discoveries that will lead to the advances necessary to make colonization of Mars a reality.

I had the pleasure of meeting one team of scientists doing just this—eight high school students from iGEM Team Navarra BG. I met the team and their advisors at the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they presented their synthetic biology project, BioGalaxy, as part of the iGEM competition. The problem they aimed to solve is key to helping humans stay on Mars for an extended period of time—how do you take everything you need when there isn’t enough room on the spacecraft? Continue reading

Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science

The South Pole was exactly as I expected—snowy and barren, apart from the giant research station in front of me. Suddenly, I got a notification in my communication system that there was a strong signal coming from the sky. I looked up and changed the visual display settings of my goggles to find stunning views of the Solar System, all the way past Pluto. My heads-up display told me that I’ve discovered a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, that flies through the fabric of space at nearly the speed of light. I wanted to find the source of this neutrino, so I switched my display to X-ray vision. The signal brightened, and the source was revealed—a massive black hole. I captured as much data as possible so I could report back to the lead scientist on the project. What an exciting afternoon of research!

Okay, I’ve never actually been to the South Pole, but I experienced this event in virtual reality at a conference expo booth for the National Science Foundation. This experience put me in the shoes of an astrophysicist working at the IceCube Neutrino Detection Facility, operated by UW-Madison researchers. As someone who specializes in the life sciences, I had the opportunity to learn more about an area outside my expertise—the fascinating world of particle physics.

VR headsets offer immersive experiences for entertainment, education, training, and more.

Most people think of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the context of gaming or entertainment. You’ve likely had a casual AR experience if you’ve ever given yourself a flower crown in Snapchat, or hunted for Charmander at your local park with the Pokémon GO app. Yet, as I experienced at a conference several weeks ago, AR and VR can have massive implications for education and training experiences in the sciences. Continue reading

Long-Lasting Beauty from the Humble Egg

“The Coronation of the Virgin” tempera on panel by Fra Angelico [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chicken eggs are widely found in most grocery stores. They are a cheap and unassuming source of protein, easy to cook as you desire (e.g., fried, scrambled, hard boiled) or use as a binder for other food items (e.g., meatloaf, cakes, cookies). One reason I keep laying hens myself is not only for fresh eggs but also to have egg shells other colors than white, the predominant color sold in US grocery stores. However, did you know that eggs have uses that don’t end up in the stomach and instead, are a feast for the eyes? I was introduced to the concept of egg tempera, a medium used for painting, by my colleague, Karen Stakun, artist and manager of our graphics department during a discussion about chickens. I was intrigued by the concept. Continue reading

Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists

Lab science cartoon

Carl may not scare her…but did she remember the controls?

Warning: This blog contains stories about phantom serial killers, frankenfoods, mysteriously phosphorylated bands and unrequited ligations that may be disturbing to some people. Children or scientists prone to anxiety over irreproducible results should read this with their eyes shut.

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Clouds hung low in the sky, and the late October wind howled between the buildings, rattling the window panes of the basement laboratory. The grackles cawed in desperate warning, their flocks changing the evening color palette from gray to black. I was as unsettled as the weather, watching my blot slosh back and forth. Continue reading

An Ode to Packaging Engineers

Comic by Ed Himelblau.

In my second or third year as a graduate student, I had to ship some microfluidic masters to a collaborator in Kenya. The masters were extremely fragile and took me several days in a cleanroom gown to make. I was horrified at having to send them on a perilous journey overseas, and somewhat flabbergasted that they made it to Nairobi whole and well. And yet, every day thousands of delicate items zoom around the world and arrive at their destinations in one piece. How?

A couple months ago, I visited the lab where our packaging engineers (yes, that’s a thing) do their work. Here’s what I learned. Continue reading

Hey, iGEMers! We’re talking to you!

The 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree is upon us! This Wednesday, October 24th, thousands of you will flood into Boston, weighed down by posters and presentation materials, but energized by the excitement of a non-stop science-packed conference. Promega will also be attending, with a booth full of helpful giveaways and staff standing by to answer all your questions about science, Promega or future careers. As you make your final plans for the Jamboree, here are a few helpful tips for making the most of this incredible opportunity.

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Celebrating the Many Faces of Science during Science-A-Thon

rae_dayofscience

“#dayofscience shows what it really means to be a modern woman scientist and helps break the stereotypes associated with our careers.” / Photo by Rae Ingold

If you follow Promega on social media, you may have noticed that several scientists and science communicators (including myself) were sharing posts for Science-A-Thon this week. The event was organized by the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), whose mission is to create opportunities for mentorship, community, and collaboration for women in science.

The goal of Science-A-Thon was to “increase visibility of scientists and the important work they do to the public.“ The week-long celebration of science also served as a campaign to raise money for ESWN and to support Science Forward, “a STEM-wide initiative that empowers scientists, promotes scientists as role models, and builds on-ramps for students to engage in STEM.” Scientists and science communicators were invited to share their #dayofscience on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook to give followers a better idea of what a scientist actually does from day to day—from morning coffee to meetings to micropipettes. Science-A-Thon followed a science outreach trend similar to the #scientistswhoselfie movement by humanizing science and showcasing the fact that scientists are people, too, with diverse backgrounds and interests.  Continue reading

In Defense of Wild Spaces in the Yard

Pale purple asters and milkweed. Copyright S. Klink.

Surrounding my mowed lawn is a wild, mostly uncultivated space that currently has goldenrod blooming with tall asters starting to blossom. Every day when I pass these flowers, I see bumblebees, butterflies and other insects collecting the nectar to eat or store for the winter. Last year, when a section of soil was disturbed during construction of a building, I decided to seed the area with native wildflowers rather than grass. (I am not a fan of mowing the lawn.) Watching the series of flowers bloom over the late spring to autumn has been beautiful, colorful and full of tiny moments of joy. Not only do I see insects enjoying the flowering plants, but birds will land on the taller greenery, sometimes just resting, sometimes collecting seeds. I am not sure who has been startled more often, me or the birds when I walk by, flushing a bird from the thicket of tall plants.

Monarch butterfly on thistle photographed in the prairie at Promega headquarters in Madison, WI. Copyright Promega Corporation.

Where some people might see wild, unruly areas, I see Monarch butterflies on their daily flight, fluttering above me and the “weeds”. I have even been lucky enough to find Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed, a common plant in my wild space. Despite my efforts, I have a lot of tall ragweed appearing in my yard, but have discovered that birds love the seeds, including my chickens, and squirrels will remove and eat the leaves. In addition, I see fireflies in early June through late August, many I find hanging out on the shady greenery during the day before their light display at night. Continue reading